Suicides in France Put Focus on Workplace

David Jolly and Matthew Saltmarsh|The New York Times

A recent spate of suicides at France Télécom has revealed a paradox at the heart of French society: Even with robust labor protection, workers here see themselves as profoundly insecure, with many complaining about being pushed beyond their limits by the pace of economic change.

In statistical terms, the 24 suicides since February 2008 at France Télécom — including eight since the beginning of summer, with the latest confirmed by the company on Monday — are not extraordinary for a group employing 102,000 people in France.

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The World Health Organization puts the suicide rate in France at 26.4 per 100,000 for men and 9.2 for women in 2005. That is the highest among large Western economies, but still well behind Japan, Belgium and several Central and East European countries. In the United States, the comparable rates are 17.7 for men and 4.5 for women.

What has caught the attention of the French media, public and government is that many of the suicides and more than a dozen failed attempts have been attributed to work-related problems by some experts and labor officials.

Adding to the furor is what Marie-France Hirigoyen, a psychiatrist who did pioneering work in France on bullying and workplace relations, described as the “spectacular” nature of some: In one case a man stabbed himself in the stomach in the middle of a meeting (he lived); in another, a woman killed herself by leaping from a fifth-floor office window. On Monday, a 51-year-old employee who worked in southeast France threw himself off a highway bridge.

The popular image outside France is of a work force that is pampered and protected from the damaging side effects of globalization by tight job security and the 35-hour work week. But the reality is often very different, according to experts, union representatives and the workers themselves.

“Stress has become a national sport,” said Michel Marchet, the secretary of the banking chapter of the C.G.T., a leading union in France. “We need employers to modify the way that they organize work, but we don’t have the impression that anything will happen soon.”

High labor costs — health insurance, unemployment, pensions — borne by employers in France create a reluctance to hire new workers, because job security means it is hard to get rid of them later if business turns down. Since those already on the payroll cannot be easily laid off, then companies must somehow make a place for them, even if their skills are no longer in demand. At the same time, companies increasingly rely on short-term employment contracts, which raise different strains on employees.

The seemingly comfortable French lifestyle has been made possible by the high productivity of the country’s workers. France ranks fifth in the world in terms of gross domestic product per hour worked, just behind the United States, according to a July report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Norway, with its oil wealth and tiny population, ranked No.1, followed by Belgium and the Netherlands.)

Yet even before the global economic downturn, Dr. Hirigoyen argued that job-related anxiety among the French has replaced most other concerns.

“When I started as a psychiatrist, 35 years ago, my patients were talking about their personal lives,” she said. “Now it’s all about their jobs. People are suffering in the workplace. They shouldn’t be, from the logic of management. After all, they have a good job, a nice vacation. But they are suffering.”

In 2006 and 2007, three technicians working at the automaker Renault’s research and development facility near Paris, committed suicide, according to Benoît Coquille, a company spokesman. At the time, union leaders cited pressures on the job. In response, Carlos Ghosn, the Renault chief executive, went to the facility to talk with workers and managers. Detailed questionnaires were sent to more than 11,000 employees and face-to-face meetings were held to discuss working conditions. Mr. Coquille said the company decided to go back and explain again basic management rules throughout the chain of command to make sure they were understood.

It is impossible to say that there have been no more work-related suicides, Mr. Coquille said, but since then, “there haven’t been any with an obvious connection to the job.”

France Télécom has now hired Technologia, the same consulting firm that helped to guide Renault’s response, to assess its own situation.

Pressures of privatization

France Télécom is in a unique position: Despite a partial privatization in 1997, two-thirds of the company’s work force is still classified as public servants and cannot be fired. And yet it is being required to compete with private companies in a fast-moving, global market.

From 2006 through 2008, France Télécom cut more than 22,000 jobs through “voluntary departures.” Nearly half of those were workers who either took early retirement, accepted transfers to civil service positions outside the company, or left to start their own businesses with the company’s backing.

By comparison, BT Group, the former British telephone monopoly that has been carrying out its own wrenching restructuring, cut 15,000 jobs in 2008 alone and has said it will cut another 15,000 this year. BT has also sought to minimize layoffs of its core group workers, instead sharply reducing the use of contractors and shuffling employees internally to fill the gaps.

Part of the problem may be that big companies like France Télécom — in which the government is still the largest single shareholder, with 23 percent — have a de facto social mission as guarantors of jobs in a country where new, good ones can be hard to find.

Sébastien Crozier, head of the CFE-CGC union at the company, estimated that over the past five years, half of all France Télécom employees had either changed jobs internally, changed work locations, or both. That, he said, has created a sense of constant upheaval and insecurity. Furthermore, he said, there is a sense that managers are deliberately trying to get employees to quit.

No matter how bad things get, Mr. Crozier said, giving up civil service status would mean sacrificing retirement benefits, so many people try to hold out, even if it means they have little of substance to do or they feel they are not being used effectively.

In response to a flurry of media attention, France Télécom has said it will freeze worker transfers until the end of October, establish an anonymous help line for troubled employees and add extra psychological and human resources support. “We are the only incumbent telecoms operator not to have carried out mass redundancies,” Olivier Barberot, France Télécom’s head of human resources, said.

“Most people, the bulk of them, have been able to increase their skills and move on to new jobs,” he said. “But some have had difficulty adapting.”

During an interview, Xavier Darcos, the French labor minister, said the problem of workplace stress was not confined to France.

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But he criticized the company’s previous approach, saying future restructuring would be “better supervised.”

“Maybe he underestimated the effect of the transformation on staff and the media impact,” Mr. Darcos said of the chief executive of France Télécom, Didier Lombard.

But, echoing comments by Mr. Lombard and Mr. Darcos, Mr. Barberot, the company’s human resources chief, said that some changes were inevitable. “We can’t stop the reorganization,” he said.